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Church History Forum: Pope and Constantine

by Catherine Frakas 14 Nov 2001

Pope and Constantine QUESTION from william pickering on March 28, 2002 Why do protestant say that Constantine was the first pope and that he stated the CC in 325AD.
ANSWER by Q & A Staff on April 1, 2002 Dear William,
This question has to be dealt with on two levels. First, we show that in actual fact there was a long line of popes to the time of Constantine, so how can Constantine be the first pope? Secondly we must look at the reasons these charges are made in the first place: what did Constantine do or appear to do that makes Protestants think he was the founder of the Catholic Church? (Answer: he called the First Council of Niceae in 325 AD).
The answer to why some Protestants say Constantine was the first pope is: because of an appalling ignorance of history. In actual fact, St. Sylvester was the pope at the time of Constantine’s rise to power in Rome. Pope St. Sylvester was also the pope when the Council of Nicaea was convened in 325 AD. Though Constantine called the council, it was Pope St. Sylvester’s legates ,Vitus (some sources say Victor) and Vincent, who ratified it in his name. The Council was attended by 318 bishops of the Catholic Church, which would be sort of tricky if Constantine himself had started the Catholic Church that year.
(The main activities of the Council were to define the Divinity of Christ, and His consubstantiality with the Father, settling the date of Easter, preparation of a list of canons, formulation of the Nicene Creed, and drafting of a letter to the Egyptian bishops to deal with the Meletian Schism.)
What confuses those who think Constantine was the first pope is the fact that Constantine was the first emperor to legitimize Christianity and made it the state religion, this coming after three hundred years during which the Catholic Church was sporadically persecuted by various Roman emperors, (such as Diocletian). This, plus the fact that Constantine ordered the First Council of Niceae to be convened, to deal with the Arian heresy, though he himself did not ratify the council, and of course could not with any validity do so.
According to anti-Catholic „historians“ who tell us Constantine was the first pope, the story then goes, invariably, that the Catholic Church now was able to openly assimilate pagan customs and myths form the residual pagan religion of Rome, and so you often hear the nonsense claims that the Catholic Church is full of paganism, from these same people who bring you the „Constantine was the first pope“ nonsense!
So when discussing this question of Constantine being the first pope (or not), it is not really sufficient to point out the historical line of the popes to that date. These opponents of Catholic claims must be shown that there is nothing „pagan“ about the Catholic Church. I have previously recommended a book to another questioner: „The Babylon Connection?“ by the Protestant Ralph Woodrow. Mr. Woodrow had previously written a book entitled „Babylon Mystery Religion“ in which he made the „Catholicism is pagan“ charges which you often hear from the „Constantine was the first pope“ brigade. In his earlier book, Woodrow had relied heavily on the work of 19th century Alexander Hislop entitled „The Two Babylons“. Later Mr. Woodrow discovered that in fact Hislop’s research was seroiusly flawed and could not in any way be taken seriously. As a result, and to his credit, Woodrow published „The Babylon Connection?“ which refutes his earlier work and shows that there is NO connection between Catholicism and the paganism of ancient Rome, Greece or Babylon.
Returning to the historical line of Bishops prior to 325 AD, I include a couple of quotes from the early Church, referring to the primacy of the See of Rome, dating from before 325 AD, to demonstrate that the idea of Constantine being the first pope is totally unsupportable. In actual fact there are countless quotes which can be provided to prove the primacy of Rome.

„But since it would be too long to eumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the Churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether throuh self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition.“ Saint Irenaneus, Against Heresies (AD 180-199), 3,3,2.

„With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal Church, in which sacerdotal unity has its source; nor did they take thought that these are Romans, whose faith was praised by the preaching Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy to have entrance.“ St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letter to Cornelius of Rome, AD 252.
Other well-known instances include Pope St. Clement’s intervention with the Church of Corinth at the end of the first century (circa 80 AD), and Pope St. Victor’s 2nd century excommunication of the Quartodecimans in regard to the dispute on the date of Easter.
If you want to look up a couple of books on the subject of the primacy of the Roman See in the early Church, I suggest „Jesus, Peter and the Keys“ by Butler, Dahlgren and Hess, and „Upon This Rock“ by Stephen Ray. Also William A. Jurgens „Faith of the Early Fathers“ is a must-have.
So to conclude, there is overwhelming evidence that the primacy of Rome was recognized for the earliest times. Attempts to make the Emperor Constantine the first pope, simply because he called the Council of Niceae (which wasn’t even the first general council of the Church, this being the Council of Jesusalem in 30 AD, cf. the Book of Acts, chapter. 15) or that he made Christianity the state religion of the Roman empire, are historically ludicrous.

Thanks William.

God bless,
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